PNG Über Alles

One of the more interesting points in Guns, Germs, and Steel is Diamond’s claim that people in Papua New Guinea (PNG) “are probably genetically superior to Westerners”: p21. More quotes: “Natural selection for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies”. p21. ‘ Modern “Stone Age” peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples. Certainly is no hint at all of any intellectual disadvantage of New Guineans that might serve to answer Yali’s question. p21’

Now this crap is not really essential to Diamond’s overall thesis – that biogeographical factors are completely responsible for different levels of cultural development, rather than (even in part) average differences in population characteristics like personality or cognition. In fact he’s getting in his own way here, stepping on his own dick: if local selective pressures could make hunter-gatherers smarter than Chinese or Jews – then they might also make Chinese or Jews smarter than hunter-gatherers. Arguing for one people’s innate intellectual advantage over others is generally frowned upon – for political/social reasons, not scientific ones – but it’s ok if A. it’s not pro-European-specialness ( pro-Korean would simply leave people confused) or B. nobody takes it seriously.

I’d say that the reaction is some A, but more B. A goodly fraction of people reading GGS simply expel these claims from their memory as confusing and indigestible, and if asked say that Diamond said no such thing. I’ve seen this, repeatedly. Some came away with the impression that he was saying that Stone-Age people are better at what they do, better adapted to their particular life-style – but that’s not what he said. It’s irrelevant anyway – what matters are abilities useful in the modern industrial world, not ones that no longer pay off. Fracking, not tracking.

Even Diamond doesn’t take it seriously: or, at minimum, doesn’t understand the implications of his claim. He’s saying that Papuans are noticeably smarter than industrialized populations, obviously so. (although apparently not obvious to anyone else on earth – I’ve never seen anyone else make this claim.) I say that you couldn’t possibly notice a 1 or 2 pt average advantage in average IQ from personal observation. 5 pts, maybe: but really, to be so striking, something more like a 10 pt difference, minimum. A moderate difference in average trait value causes a huge change in the fraction that exceeds a high cutoff: if the PNG edge were 10 pts, then the fraction of people with IQs > 148 (3 standard deviations above average) would be much, much higher in PNG than in Britain or the US – something like 7 times higher. if this were the case, PNG, population 7 million, would have as approximately as many potential Nobel-level intellects as Great Britain. If anyone believed this, they’d be searching PNG (inch by inch) for those diamonds in the rough. That hasn’t happened. Nobody takes the implications seriously, or maybe they don’t see them. Or, maybe, they think that Diamond is sucking up to his hosts – the Fore are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful humans beings he’s ever known in his life.

Diamond’s argument is general, not just about PNG. He says that peoples who were hunter-gatherers until recently are probably smarter. Yet in no case does reality actually conform to his hypothesis. In every case, people with such backgrounds do poorly in in conventional schooling, often very poorly.

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91 Responses to PNG Über Alles

  1. reinertor says:

    A goodly fraction of people reading GGS simply expel these claims from their memory as confusing and indigestible, and if asked say that Diamond said no such thing. I’ve seen this, repeatedly.

    I met a Hungarian biologist who denied Diamond ever having made that statement. I told him to re-read the frigging book.

    • pyrrhus says:

      Yes, this was a major memory hole item for almost everyone who read the book….

    • Smithie says:

      That’s funny. I remember it (read it about 10 yrs ago) but probably because I thought it was funny. I think he might have used the word “discovered” (for the Americas) in quotes, but that is about the only other obviously crazy thing I recall. Somewhat restrained overall, compared to others in this apologist genre.

      I recall a book where the author claimed the Chinese were wise to burn all their ships and give up exploring because Zheng He’s expedition was so expensive and hard on the environment. Maybe, they should have just scaled down to three small ships like Columbus…

  2. spottedtoad says:

    They were taking him around looking for birds in the jungle, right? That was why he was there? Maybe they seemed really sharp under those circumstances, and he seemed/felt himself or other Westerners to be particularly incompetent under the same circumstances.

    I took great notice of him saying this- I asked an acquaintance who had taught in the Peace Corps in PNG if she noticed them being extra smart, and then she told me the story of how her fellow PNG native teachers took the generator her husband bought to run a fridge to keep medicines from going bad and unplugged the fridge and used the generator to run a TV that played Baywatch 24-7, which they were so addicted to they would frequently miss the classes they were supposed to be teaching, once the generator was put to this valuable purpose. The medicines went bad, of course.

    But she did say that, in the jungle, her students came off as quite competent making shelters or snares, and she assumed that’s where Diamond’s claim came from.

  3. Just a pious fiction. Dawkins probably chooses to believe it himself, but surely has enough sense not to examine it very closely.

  4. João says:

    So, can we have a post about must-read books to get the sense of how the world work, I’m not talking about conspiracy stuff, but history, economics, psychology and the such, you know, to get the sense of how the world really works.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      start with the ancients and work forward in time – apart from science by the time you get to Boethius you’ll know 90% of the good stuff

  5. Rosenmops says:

    The native people of western Canada were hunter gathers up until a few hundred years ago (or maybe less). They are not noted for doing well in school. Just the opposite, if anything. Mind you a lot of them have fetal alcohol syndrome. They are greatly overrepresented in prisons. Not sure how much of this is due to addiction related issues. I hope someone is studying the genetics of the addiction problem of the natives, because this might lead to some useful treatment. Blaming the addiction on their grandparents being in residential schools is nonsense. But if you don’t agree with this you are basically Hitler.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I think a high susceptibility to alcoholism is common, maybe universal, among groups that haven’t farmed long. I think it would cause them significant trouble even if they had no IQ disadvantage. It should be easier to fix than any IQ disadvantage: you can choose to be a teetotaler if you’re tough, and then there’s prohibition.

      • Rosenmops says:

        Unfortunately, in practice, addictions issues are definitely not easy to fix.

        • gcochran9 says:

          “easier”, not easy.

        • Frau Katze says:

          The Presbyterian Church of Scotland (where there are also alcohol problems) came out strongly for a complete ban on alcohol. Even to the point of using grape juice rather than wine for communion. It worked until atheism became popular.

          The Catholic Church in Ireland couldn’t do this since they served a much wider area, including the Middle East, where there was no apparent problem, going back to Biblical times.

        • Frau Katze says:

          But Mohammed banned alcohol. Perhaps in his area of the Middle East (Mecca, Medina) there were alcohol problems.

          • dried peanuts says:

            Can’t find it but there is a hilarious passage in a Robert Fisk book about Saudi Bedouins getting hammered off booze confiscated from westerners at the airport. Spirits are poured into pint glasses until brimming full and then drunk neat. If a glass is not full when a bottle is empty, they immediately start pouring from a new bottle, regardless of whether it is whiskey, gin, vodka or what have you.

        • djw says:

          Addictions are just difficult to fix. Stupid is impossible to fix.

  6. RCB says:

    I recall it distinctly as one of the more bizarre statements in the book. I thought that even when I first read it – back when I wanted all the rhetoric to be true.

  7. gwood says:

    Reminds me of when Bill Gates was going to Africa to find the next Einstein.

  8. I saw this claim when GGS first came out, in several reviews. I immediately concluded that Diamond was acting in bad faith, and never bothered with the book. Call this a signal that benefits the receiver but not the sender.

  9. MW says:

    Wasn’t there a study about how you could take aboriginal children in the classroom and ask them to point home and they did so correctly at much higher rates than white Australians? That makes perfect sense as a certain adaptation that would be “intelligence” in an environment where one needed to remember the water hole, but doesn’t apply so well to a society where being descended from merchants and cold weather farmers is what is rewarded.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Not sure it replicated.

    • Fun tangent, that. The research on wayfinding as of about 2010 (I haven’t kept up since then. Fascination ended.) suggested that a trait related to this is found in all populations. Specifically, if a person starts a journey even without trails and roads, they can point back to the starting point for quite a ways out, in spite of some turns. There may be frequency differences in populations, but it seems to be universal. You can read about it in Erik Jonsson’s Inner Navigation, or catch my whole series here.

    • Jim says:

      Australian aborigines supposedly have a good memory for visual detail which if true would certainly be useful for wandering around in natural environments. Also I think myopia is rare among them. I once watched a documentary showing some Amazon tribesman hunting a monkey way up in a tree. I’m pretty myopic and I doubt I could even have located the monkey visually without glasses. And if I had had glasses they would have been all steamed up. The monkey would have been pretty safe from me but they finally got it with blow-gun darts.

  10. bob k. mando says:

    amusing the juxtaposition of this post with the previous one:
    domesticated species end to have depigmentation, floppy ears, shorter muzzles, curly tails, smaller teeth, smaller cranial capacity

    it seems logical to assume that hunter gatherers would be LESS domesticated than urban Westerners or Han Chinese. is this reflected in a larger brain volume on the part of the PNG natives? or are they smaller?

    if they don’t reflect the larger ‘feral’ cranial capacity, why not?

    if they do have a larger brain pan, why does that not translate to better IQ performance? iirc, IQ tends to follow brain mass to body mass RATIO which is how you can get amazingly intelligent behavior out of a mockingbird or herding dog even though in absolute terms their brain capacity is rather small.

    • gcochran9 says:

      people in PNG have pretty low cranial capacities, around 1275 cc. But in apparently all populations, cranial capacity used to be larger. It started decreasing about 25,000 years ago and is now down about 10%.

      Why? nobody really knows. Even if humans have gone through a process that is in some ways like the domestication of dogs and cattle, it can’t be exactly the same. Obviously we haven’t gotten floppy ears: maybe hearing well is crucial to speech, which those domesticates don’t have. Humans copy the behavior of other humans, but this gets far more complicated than it does when a whole herd of sheep jumps off the same cliff. A little more complicated, anyhow.

      • bob k. mando says:

        so the historical PNG population likewise had larger cranial capacity? was that larger capacity proportional to contemporaneous populations ( ie – still quite small for the epoch )?

        it seems quite odd that we should have a universally applicable shrinkage in brain capacity across all the various environment types which people inhabit.

        • Greying Wanderer says:

          there might be two opposed processes

          1) brains/skulls getting bigger in colder regions (Bergman’s rule)
          2) brains/skulls getting smaller over time through getting more efficient in some way (cos child birth)

          so maybe
          north: x + y – z
          equator: x – z

      • Studies on the decrease in cranial capacity have been made predominantly in European or European ancestry specimens, and also attributing the high cranial capacity of the Cro-Magnon specimens found in Europe to all Pleistocene humans, which is misleading. Do you have a link claiming to have studied PNG specimens?

      • Jim says:

        I thought ears in humans were largely useless. Does cutting off a person’s ears affect their hearing much?

  11. I remember the claim in all its absurdity. I continued reading in the hope of learning more about geography, but on balance wasted my time.

  12. You don’t have to read far in the book to realize that Diamond could continue his “research” from now until doomsday, but, no matter which way the evidence pointed, he would never conclude that whites are smarter than any other human population. “Guns, Germs and Steel” is an ideological tract, not a work of science.

    • yin says:

      Diamond also wrote “The World Until Yesterday”, where he finds there is much to learn from traditional societies in respect to child rearing, elder care, communication, and physical fitness, etc.

      “Being in New Guinea is for me like seeing an otherwise gray world briefly in bright colors.” – Jared Diamond

      • JerryC says:

        Briefly is right, since the intelligence and all around wonderfulness of the Papuans did not stop him from going back to Los Angeles.

        • He was afraid he couldn’t keep up with such an advanced society.

          • Colin McColinater says:

            From what i can gather living in jungles is pretty demoralising.

            • Toddy Cat says:

              “there is much to learn from traditional societies in respect to child rearing, elder care, communication, and physical fitness, etc.”

              Given how utterly screwed up Western Society has become in the last fifty years or so with regard to these topics, he’s probably right, but that tells us more about the trajectory of our society than about PNG. You have to live in a highly advanced society, with social capital built up for centuries to come up with absurd crap like Dr. Spock, chronic cardio, and Facebook. Nonsense at this level would destroy a population of hunter-gatherers almost immediately.

      • Jim says:

        Being in the tropics it probably is a lot brighter and more colorful than say Newfoundland.

    • Jim says:

      Whites are not smarter than Northeast Asians.

  13. Ursiform says:

    If you’re a naive white guy plopped down in a rain forest the locals probably seem pretty smart. And they are in the sense of having a great amount of locally useful knowledge. An eight-year-old local kid will have more immediately useful smarts than almost any university professor. But that’s not a test of ultimate processing capability.

    • Hugh Mann says:

      File alongside “how well would the average Brit survive compared with a Somali if their village was raided by tribal militia?” – when a more relevant question is “are raids by tribal militia more likely in a society of Somalis or a society of Brits?”.

  14. dearieme says:

    I feel that the claim that hunter-gatherers might be pretty clever has an intuitive appeal just because we’d expect to make pretty lousy hunter-gatherers ourselves. It’s just that it turns out to be bollocks. Evidence and sciencey stuff aren’t Diamond’s strength.

    I once watched an Ozzie Abo throwing a stick. The speed and accuracy were mighty impressive. But except for professional sportsmen there’s not much demand for those skills in our technological/scientific/commercial civilisation.

  15. Halvorson says:

    Diamond was the author of maybe the least PC article of the last 30 years: “Ethnic differences: Variation in human testis”. He argues that Africans evolved larger testicles because (this is unspoken) their women are more promiscuous and so men needed to eject more semen to outdo their competitors, comparable to what happens in chimpanzees.

  16. Jerome says:

    I recall noting this the first time I read the book, and deciding that Diamond might not be the sharpest tool in the shed if he did not see the implications of his own claim. But as I recall, his “evidence” was that he was certain his hosts in PNG would have found it very easy to kill one of the “Valley Girls” he was forced to tolerate in his classes in order to get paid. He based this on the fact that they spent a lot of time trying to kill each other,and were pretty good at it. So, yeah, if you define “intelligence” as the ability to kill unsuspecting female children, I would not be surprised if those guys are all veritable Einsteins.

    • Frau Katze says:

      Interesting. I noticed the stupid things he said, but just sort of ignored them because some of what he said seemed reasonable.

      I even thought he was trying to be PC about the PNGs. The whole book was an exercise in PC.

      I also got off on a tangent by arguing with a PC professor who said Diamond was an idiot for blaming the high number of deaths on European (and African) on disease, rather than insisting the Conquistadors had killed them personally. This guy was so PC he made Diamond look like a beacon of wisdowm.

      • Jerome says:

        Disease is a two-edged sword;

        Beware, beware, the Bight of Benin,
        One comes out where fifty went in!

        • Frau Katze says:

          Yes indeed, the Europeans in the tropical new world were hammered by African diseases like yellow fever.

          But the guy I was arguing with didn’t even know that. For a history prof he had some major gaps.

    • Jim says:

      Few human populations have found it very difficult to kill other humans. Killing people isn’t rocket science although you can kill a lot of people with rockets.

  17. sinij says:

    What I always wondered, if Chinese average IQ is higher, why don’t they produce as much innovation? There must be some other factors at play in addition to raw IQ.

    • Eponymous says:

      Clearly there are social factors at work as well, e.g. European Jews didn’t produce a lot of innovation pre-1850 or so, but after that were hugely intellectually influential.

      At least that’s my understanding; Greg can correct me if I’m mistaken, as he’s an expert here.

    • Michael H says:

      For centuries China did produce significant technological innovation. From “The Lever of Riches” by Joel Mokyr:

      “The greatest enigma in the history of technology is the failure of China to sustain its technological supremacy. In the centuries before 1400, the Chinese developed an amazing technological momentum, and moved, as far as these matters can be measured, at a rate as fast as or faster than Europe. Many of their innovations eventually found their way to Europe, either by direct importation or by independent reinvention.”

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Insane stuff in the recent past like starving 45 million of your own people while trying to make high-speed steel in a BBQ grill, and sending your best scientists to work on pig farms probably didn’t help. We’ll see what happens in the next fifty years…

        • Jim says:

          Fanatical ideology can be combined with high IQ. Lenin did very well academically but his economic policies produced disaster.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      one possible explanation is if innovation is a combination of IQ and some x factor then if civilization itself selects against the x factor then civilizations will naturally tend to stagnate.

  18. PB says:

    It seems that Diamond’s conclusions were probably ideologically motivated. A book by Nicholas Wade says that Diamond’s time in PNG led him to doubt the conclusions of white American IQ researchers. (

  19. jb says:

    I never read the book, but I do remember reading those quotes in some sort of magazine extract (maybe in Natural History Magazine?). My impression at the time was not that Diamond was claiming to have personally observed higher intelligence in PNG natives, but rather that he was making a facile hand-waving argument from first principles, mainly to tweak any racist white readers of his book, but also to demonstrate his own enlightenment. Racists believe that white people are smarter than non-whites, so if you believe the opposite that makes you the opposite of a racist. I think this is somewhat akin to Western elites encouraging the flooding their own countries with non-white foreigners in order to demonstrate that are the exact opposite of Hitler — and therefore as virtuous as it is possible to be.

    Diamond certainly didn’t seem to have thought through the implications of his remark. Has he ever followed up on it in any way? Doubled down? Walked it back?

  20. st says:

    “Diamond’s argument is general….. He says that peoples who were hunter-gatherers until recently are probably smarter. Yet in no case does reality actually conform to his hypothesis.”
    -Really?The Indo-European agriculturalists settled in what is now Finland, once part of the corded ware expansion, for one welcome their new, hunter-gathering, Ugro-Finnic overlords, whatever the reason – climate change or else.
    That aside, EEF for one welcomed their new, more-resent -hunter-gatherers, proto-Indo-European overlords.
    Now even that aside Romans, by 476 already old-time agriculturalists, for one welcomed their new, recent hunter-gathering, Hunnic overlords. And later – their Germanic (gothic and vandal) barbarian, more recent than them HG overlords.
    Now let us compare the achievements of the Romans and their barbarian would -be overlords in time. Romans reached as far as England, which is great. Their recent HG overlords reached the moon and sent probes to Mars, Jupiter, and the stars.
    So what JD says seems confusing – for now, but can we say “it never happened”? It has, more than once.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Not so long ago, everybody was a hunter-gatherer. Time has passed: things and people have changed.

      On the other hand, people who were hunter-gatherers 50 or 100 years ago probably haven’t changed much, other than from admixture.

    • moscanarius says:

      Let’s also remember that the migrating Germanic tribes had mostly not been hunter-gatherers for a long time. Many of them could be associated with agricultural cultures in Northern Germany/Poland/Southern Scandinavia, or at least with pastorialist people. All had knowledge of metallurgy, and most have been shown to be acquitained with Roman culture even before entering the Emprire. This is very different from the PNG situation, and does not disprove what our host said.

  21. Greg, How ’bout reading or rereading overlooked books of haute vulgarisation and commenting thereon? Stuff I haven’t read. “Fracking, not tracking” is a keeper though. Yours?

  22. Greying Wanderer says:

    “or B. nobody takes it seriously. I’d say that the reaction is some A, but more B. A goodly fraction of people reading GGS simply expel these claims from their memory as confusing and indigestible, and if asked say that Diamond said no such thing.”

    I think it’s cognitive dissonance – people expel it because of the logical implications. In my case i noticed that comment at the time and despite more or less taking the rest of the book on trust that comment remained as a cognitively dissonant pebble in my shoe afterwards – eventually leading to realizing the whole PC thing was a crock. My guess is other people noticed the cognitive dissonance as well but then buried it more deeply – same effect as “nobody takes it seriously” but different sequence.

  23. Isabel says:

    So why is the brain size of hunter-gatherers from the past larger than of modern humans?

    If brain size correlates with IQ than this would mean that Homo Sapiens from before 200 000 years ago were much smarter than modern humans.

    This coud also mean that the “idiocracy effect” is going since the agricultural revolution.

    • gcochran9 says:

      You don’t have to go that far back: brain size starts shrinking later than that.

      Brain size correlates with IQ, about 0.4. So , all else equal, a bigger brain -> smarter.

      ‘All else equal’ probably needs to be emphasized. Not much was being invented 100k or 200k years ago. Change was very slow. Operationally, people weren’t smart.

      • sinij says:

        Perhaps bigger brain was necessary to survive diseases? It just doesn’t make sense to claim that our distant ancestors were smarter, otherwise we would see more signs of it. Pythagorean theorem in context of Greek mathematics isn’t harder than Penrose–Hawking singularity theorem in context of modern astrophysics. Yet we get A LOT more of them, and only some of this progress can be explained by higher population.

  24. capra internetensis says:

    Wallace, certainly plenty racist by modern standards, says in The Malay Archipelago:
    “Of the intellect of this race it is very difficult to judge, but I am inclined to rate it somewhat higher than that of the Malays, notwithstanding the fact that the Papuans have never yet made any advance toward civilization…. Papuan slaves show no inferiority of intellect compared with Malays, but rather the contrary; and in the Moluccas they are often promoted to positions of considerable trust.”

    He is of course not claiming they are intellectually superior to Europeans.

  25. Maybe a lot of people who read GGS didn’t actually read it, but rather claimed to for social brownie points.

    • Frau Katze says:

      Not in my case. I overlooked the stupid stuff because there were some good points.

      But maybe I shouldn’t have kept reading. I don’t know.

      As for Brownie points, some leftists consider him verboten because he said Old World diseases killed the natives.

      These leftists don’t believe that for a minute. They believe the Spanish and English killed them the like the Germans killed the Jews. I just read one saying that yesterday.

      I am sure they killed some but I don’t think they had the means (especially back in 1500s!) to do as Hitler did.

      So it’s unclear whether or not the book is even politically correct.

  26. Fisherking says:

    “the Fore are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful humans beings he’s ever known in his life.” and even now I feel that way – this minute. And yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, something tells me it’s not true. It’s just not true. It isn’t as if the Fore hard to like. He’s impossible to like.

  27. John Harvey says:

    When I read his statement about clever PNGs in Diamond’s GG&S, I assumed it was just a bit of virtue signalling. Rather as Rousseau’s noble savage is sometimes used today.

  28. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/08/20) - Social Matter

  29. Funny that others forget it. It’s the thing that sticks out most in my memory – as a glaring absurdity and an implicit declaration of bias – many years after reading the book.

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